Where liberalist method and ethnography meet

Excerpts taken from “Ethnographic Research Through a Liberationist Lens: Ethical Reflections on Fieldwork” written by Elina Hankela. (Missionalia, 43(2), 195-217)

The condition of truth is to allow the suffering to speak. It doesn’t mean that those who suffer have a monopoly on truth, but it means that the condition of truth to emerge must be in tune with those who are undergoing social misery – socially induced forms of suffering. – Cornel West

UbuntuMigrationMinistryEHankelaThe liberationist method highlights, on the one hand, critical social analysis and, on the other, the choice of structurally marginalised people as interlocutors. The condition of truth, …, then necessitates identifying those who suffer and allowing them a space to speak. To allow someone to speak, in turn, requires the skill to listen, and to do so ethically.(p.196)

On personal relationships and particular stories

… If commitment to the option for the poor at the structural level indicates a political commitment, at an interpersonal and ethnographic level I read it to imply commitment to these particular young people as human beings (see also Scharen and Vigen 2011:21-24). The full humanity of the interlocutor, whom the system maybe wants to strip of his humanity, becomes central in the face-to-face encounter. Marginalised people and groups are then not just those who can expose the cruelty of the system through their experiences. They are people who live, think, fight, love, pray besides struggling to survive and make ends meet; no one’s reality is exhausted in the tragic structure but is rich in its complexity (Gutiérrez 2003:125, Gutiérrez 1988:xxi quoted in Noble 2013:20, see also Noble 2013:22, Maduro 2009:21).(p.206).

Methodologically the personhood of this young man who sits opposite me in an interview translates into my careful listening to him as the one who ought to command me as a scholar (see Noble 2013:81). “How can I dialogue if I consider myself a member of an in-group of ‘pure’ men, the owners of truth and knowledge, for whom all non-members are ‘these people’ or ‘the great unwashed’?” Paulo Freire (2000:90) asks poignantly. Instead, “at its best, ethnographic work … reflects an engaged dialogue with others” (Sharen and Vigen 2011:21-22)… If an interlocutor offers a conflicting view, it needs to be addressed as more than a proof of the power of the system to indoctrinate. Denying respect for the otherness of the interlocutor, and his or her intelligibility and intelligence, soon lands one in a space where the otherness is simply a commodity to be capitalised on (see Scharen and Vigen 2011:22, Smith 1999:82, 88-90) – here as a means to a liberationist end. As a stance this is, of course, self-evident to many, but at times we as critical scholars do not seem to actually be willing to truly listen. (p.206)

This does not have to mean that the researcher lets go of her or his commitment to the theology or politics of liberation. Methodologically a creative mutually enriching, perhaps corrective, balance between a critical biased liberationist social analysis at the structural level and truly listening to people at the personal level could be sought through a “hermeneutics of suspicion” (Fulkerson 2012:137) directed towards the systems that shape society, as well as towards the liberationist tradition itself, and “a hermeneutics of generosity” (Farmer 2013a:18) towards what and how people describe and define their reality. When both are respected, the former can at times explain the latter, and at times the latter can challenge the former.(p.207)

On invested interpersonal dialogue as action

I sat on the stairs in front of a building in the township. We were to discuss the research project with those participants who stayed there. One of the younger youths came to greet me and asked why I had come there that day: “Are you doing another programme?” The ease at which she paralleled this research project with the youth group project that she too had participated in the previous year – as had the older youths, who now were involved in the research – caught me off guard. She might well have made the comment in a context of not having heard much about the research project from the older youths, but nevertheless she got me thinking. (p.208)

… Influenced by Paulo Freire’s (2000) writing, in my current research setting I have come to think of dialogue (both formal and informal), in which a scholar invests herself or himself, as one form of liberationist action. Dialogue as ‘action’ and mutual consciousness-raising is related to navigating the creative tension between critical social analysis and carefully listening to one’s dialogue partners. I share with the young people – in various ways, verbal and other – my faith in social justice and the insights that I have gathered in my studies about unjust systemic realities. They continue to open my mind to understand what life, dreams, the world and challenges actually look like from where they stand. (p.209)

… The teenager’s comment on the ‘programme’ in the opening story continues to challenge me to think of research methods that would be based on a joint journey the same way as the youth group sessions are, namely to be more explicitly a space of thinking and growing together from the outset. (p.209-210)

… invested interpersonal dialogue [is] one possible way of living out the commitment to social transformation, and to the interlocutors, in the context of long-term (research) relationships. (p.214)

On the messiness of monetary and material exchanges

.. As Blessing, a young man whom I know from the same community where I do research, instructed me once, material exchanges are not the key to being human to the next person.  … a liberationist reading of research ethical questions around material exchanges involves more than the material things, as Blessing too pointed out. In the preferential option for the poor “we find … a profound reflection on what it means to be human and to create a more humane world” (Gutiérrez and Groody 2014:3). Indeed in a relationship one party cannot simply be an ATM without that affecting both parties and the relationship, very likely negatively. Often money might not be the best, and surely not the only, way of ‘serving’ the next person. Moreover, the expectation of being human to the next person – treating the other with dignity – applies to both parties if the research participant is respected as a human being capable of humane conduct (see Hankela 2014a:370-371, Metz 2012). This can of course mean different things in different instances, but also cautions one to think of money in a broader context of humane interaction. … In a complex social reality an exercise book can at times be a natural aspect of a humane relationship in our inhumane world, while at other times some material exchanges could become a hindrance to a humane relationship.(p.211, 212,213)

… instead of emphasising the implications of material exchanges on the quality of the data, the emphasis in making ethical choices should instead be based, first, on a social analysis of inequalities and one’s choice to inhabit the given context, and second, on the implications that these exchanges might have for the research participant as well as the relationship between her or him and the researcher.(p.214)

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